Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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16 Ways to Defend a Walled City

After reading K.J. Parker’s novella Prosper’s Demon in January, we decided that 16 Ways to Defend a Walled City should follow soon.

The main character Orhan, a colonel of engineers, is widely out of his depth when the city faces an approaching siege. But he has to take command, since nobody else is willing to do it. What follows is a series of events he would probably never have bargained for. He proves to be cunning and resourceful, and is a great character to spend time with.

The plot of the book is built up in a very entertaining and clever way, and even the enemy on the other side of the wall proves to be a surprise for Orhan. Since the story is told as Orhan’s account of the events, the narration is pleasantly unreliable.

Parker’s writing style once again managed to delight us. Cleverly crafted shenanigans (yeah engineering!) are mixed with scenes that hilariously highlight the absurd paths bureaucracy can take. In one scene Orhan has to hunt down this book’s equivalent to permit A 38. Compared to Prosper’s Demon, the main characters feel quite similar. Which is a very good thing, if you share our fondness for smart, flawed characters and a dry sense of humour. There is also a sequel (How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It) following a different main character. We think it is a good idea to take some time between those books so that Parker’s style does not feel too repetitive.

March Buddyread

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, originally published September 2019, is an absolute brick of a book. With 630 pages, you get a lot to read and think about.

Warning: This is more a rant than a review, and as such it contains what some people might consider spoilers.

To be honest, neither of the three of us liked the book. Reading the first part of the book we all agreed that it gave us a sense of Déjà-Vu. We were reminded of The Da Vinci Code -we even went so far as to say Da Vinci Code with Fairies-, American Gods, The Starless Sea and a bit of Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery series.

The second part then picked up some speed when a detective, Jacob, was on the main character Taryn’s heels. He was looking into the murder of Taryn’s sister’s murderer. Taryn also introduces her book. A book about books, but the only really important part in Taryn’s book is a scroll box named the Firestarter. When Taryn and the detective get plunged into fairy land, we didn’t bat an eyelash, we were still fully on board. But then,… then the book just took a turn for the worse.

What followed were long descriptions that more often that not seemed to make no sense at all and just bogged down the main story. Also: Can someone please explain why we have this mishmash of different believe systems? What’s the Christian concept of Hell to do with Celtic mythology? And what the BH do Hugin and Munin and Odin and Mimir have to do with this? And since when is Mimir a norn? Without prior knowledge about these systems, we would have been even more confused.

Naturally, we started discussing this. We could not come up with a reasonable explanation other than, it’s weird, we might have to live with it.

Ploughing on, and that is what it felt from then on, we went back and forth within the chapters we were reading and re-read passages, just to still be confused by events and discussions that seemed to have happened off the page.

We considered bailing. Then TheLadyDuckOfDoom went ahead and skimread to the end. Pre-warning that we’d encounter a passage where over more than ten pages nothing much happens but Taryn and Jacob trying to lift something. No wonder the book is so long!

In the end, we find out what is inside the Firestarter scroll box and why it is so bloody important – ridiculously anticlimactic. We finally find out what The Absolute Book, the book is named after, actually is. And there is an interesting and rather weird attempt at solving climate change with magic.

Final conclusion. The Absolute Book was absolutely not our cup of tea, but lots of tea was drunk during the reading process, and gin. From a certain point on tea just didn’t do it anymore.

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: This book tries to be everything at once. It gets so lost during that. It should have focused on fewer things.

News from the Belvedere

Or, the sixth book about the sleuthing adventures of Veronica Speedwell and Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. At the beginning of An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn, published 02 March 2021, Veronica and Stoker are helping setting up an exhibition in honour of a female mountaineer who died in an accident climbing the legendary ‘Teufelstreppe’ [fictitious mountain in a fictitious Alpine country].

As can be expected, they find evidence for the mountaineer’s death having been murder. Trying to investigate this, at Stoker’s loud refusal, leads the two of them down a very interesting path indeed; Veronica has to impersonate a head of state, while Stoker has to try and keep her alive as death threats arrive.

If you’ve read the previous five books, you know what happened at the end of book five, A Murderous Relation. If you further think that those events, which I am not going to spoil here, might influence the dynamic between the duo, you are wrong. The two of them still banter, the air between them still crackles, and it’s still great fun to read.

Okay, I’m going to say it, I love Veronica and Stoker. But I didn’t love this story as much as the ones before. For the main part, the twists were very predictable. When the previous books mentioned to surprise me here and there and I couldn’t put them away until I had read the story, this instalment I kept putting away for other books.

Anyway, the last lines hint at another story for Veronica and Stoker, and I will gladly come back to Victorian London to investigate whatever Deanna Raybourn has thought up for them.

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors – Review

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors is the start of The Risen Kingdom, a trilogy by Curtis Craddock, which has been on my TBR for AGES. I finally managed to hunt down a copy of the first book, and decided to start reading it pretty fast. And I was not disappointed. Let’s have a look at the blurb here:

In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

Blurb on Goodreads

If you aren’t intrigued by that, I fear things are hopeless for you. Isabelle is highly intelligent in a world that forbids women to think, has a deformed hand when physical perfection is required by the world’s religion, and has no allies except the musketeer that has been charged with her protection.

Isabelle and the mentioned musketeer Jean-Claude make a stunning duo of quick wits. Both have their unique strengths as they are cast into unknown situations with traitors, conspirators, and unlikely allies.

The author does not make every twist and turn plain for the reader to see, instead, he let’s them guess at the hidden intentions of the players, and he even has some real surprises in store for us. The world is planned out with thought, and has some really interesting aspects – I can’t wait to see more of it. An absolute recommendation.

Golden Girls

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, published February 2021 (in the US).

The story is your obvious YA story. A young girl who used to be not very popular in her village, due to her heritage, has hidden powers with which she can help the emperor’s army defeat the demonic creatures that befall the land. Of course, everyone, even the emperor, has a hidden agenda. Soon it’s clear that Deka, the main character, has to become the saviour of all, especially of oppressed girls and women.

In this case the story has a west African background. The world-building is good. The main character, Deka, is strong and her character arc is interesting. But, sorry to say, it is a YA fantasy that distinguishes itself only by not being based on European or North American fantasy blueprints.

Break a Curse, or two, or three…

In order to properly review the third book in Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series, I made my way through the first two books on audio.

  • Book 1: A Curse So Dark And Lonely, published 29 January, 2019.
  • Book 2: A Heart So Fierce And Broken, published 07 January, 2020.
  • Book 3: A Vow So Bold And Deadly, published 26 January, 2021.

Spoilers ahead! Though I am trying to not spoil too much of the stories.

A Curse So Dark And Lonely – the first book – is a Beauty and the Beast retelling with a twist. Prince Rhen was cursed to repeat the season of his eighteenth birthday until a girl/woman would fall in love with him. He was cursed by a sorceress, because she could not lure him into her trap and make him marry her after they spent one night together. More than three hundred seasons after the curse only Rhen and his personal guardsman Grey are left in the castle. This time Harper is the girl that’s supposed to fall in love with Rhen. Harper is from Washington DC, had a rough-ish upbringing and isn’t easily cowed by Rhen and Grey. This is what I most liked about the story. Harper does not swoon at the sight of a chiselled jaw, nor is she overly impressed by Rhen’s royal title. Instead she gives as good as she gets. For some time there was a hint at a possible love triangle with Grey, which, fortunately, turned out to be just friendship. Phew!

A Heart So Fierce And Broken – the second book – is more about Grey and what his live turns out to be following the end of book one. It’s interesting to see his character arc, and that of the people around him. But what happens in his part of the story, and in Emberfall and the surrounding kingdoms, was no big surprise to me, which made this a typical middle book.

Book 3, A Vow So Bold And Deadly, brings all the main players together onto one playing field. Eventually, some characters find out that talking some problems through might actually help solving them. [big eye-roll here] Of the three books this was certainly the most predictable in terms of outcome. Yet, there were a few twists that even redeemed book two. I’m still going so far as to say that book 2 and 3 could have been pulled together. This would have worked as a duology, too.

The audiobook narration of book 1 and 2 was good. Each character had it’s own narrator, which helped flesh them out some more. Some of the American English pronunciation of one particular character in A Heart was a bit grating to my ears, but that’s because I’m a snob.

If I had to pick a favourite from the series, it would be the first book, A Curse So Dark And Lonely, just because it had a new twist on the Beauty and the Beast retelling; the fierce female MC stayed strong to her character even when faced with a seemingly flawless prince.

On travelling the Continent

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, published 10 July 2018. The second book in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series did not disappoint at all. If you’ve got the chance, get the audiobook version. (I’m going to rave about it further down.)

Let’s shortly recap [spoilers for book 1 ahead!]. The first book was about Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr Jekyll, who’s assisting Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in solving the Whitechapel Murders. This leads to her finding out about the secret Alchemical Society her father was a member of; and she finds the daughter’s of other Gothic mad scientists: Diana Hyde (her half-sister), Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau and Beatrice Rappaccini.

The second story picks up a short while after the ladies have settled in the Jekyll household, calling themselves the Athena Club. From a telegram, they learn that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped. Of course they have to rescue yet another daughter of a mad scientist from being experimented on. This time though, they have to travel to Vienna and Budapest for their rescue mission.

The story is told by Catherine Moreau, with lots of interjections throughout the writing process from the, sometimes bickering, young ladies and the household staff. It took me some time to get used to it in the first book, but I was actually looking forward to it in this second book.

Book 2 leaves us with a cliffhanger for the final story (really?) The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, published in 2019. I’ve already added it to my TBR in the audiobook version, because s.b.

What I truly loved was the audiobook. The narrator, Kate Reading, does an amazing job with all the different characters’ voices, but much more with the languages involved. It was fun listening to this story, and should I ever meet Ms Reading in real life, I’ll have to bow to her. Especially because, as a native speaker of German, I have to say, she managed 99% of the German words accurately – not once did her German sound false. Neither did her French or Italian – I should not comment on the Hungarian and Latin, but I am fairly certain she did those well too.

In short, get the audiobook. It’s 24 hours long, but it’s fun to listen to.

Addition by LadyDuckOfDoom: I love this series! I’ve read all three books, and now I am jealous that I did now listen to the audiobooks.

Addition in response to LadyDuckOfDoom: But I’m fairly certain you’ve got the print editions on your shelf, which I don’t have. So we’re both jealous. I’m not going to punch you in the arm for it. And I hope you’re not going to kick me Diana-style under the table.

Atonement is a long and lonely road

H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke, published 19 January 2021. First book in a series of standalone fantasy novels set in the same universe.

Hessa had one job. And she failed spectacularly at it. Hessa’s goddess tasked her with killing one particular visitor to the village, which Hessa didn’t do. While praying for forgiveness at a shrine high up on a mountainside, to be able to reenter the rangs of the Eangie – a magical warrior priest cast (?) – Hessa’s village is raided by the visitor’s clansmen. Hessa doesn’t make it back in time to save the villagers. What follows is her long journey to atone to be allowed into the High Halls after her death, to be reunited with her loved ones. While different clans from the north and south raid her homeland and murder her people, Hessa has to find the man she didn’t kill and finish the job to curry favour with her goddess to gain a life after death.

This story was hailed as being Viking inspired and I probably expected it to be a lot like Vikings the TV show. After the raid of Hessa’s village, right at the beginning of the book, nothing really interesting happens for a very long time though. In fact, for a good 3/4 of the book, Hessa does nothing but travel, trying to find the man she had to kill. This makes for a lot of (tiresome) landscape descriptions, but little character interaction. Thats’s what I missed most, I guess, some interaction with other characters and a few secondary characters that were more than extras with a few lines. But as I wrote in my headline, the road to atonement might have to be a lonely one. So the missing interaction might be a feature, not a bug. Still, for a book that straddles the fence between YA and NA, I expected a faster pacing.

Squirrel Cat to the Rescue

One of the first books I picked up this year is Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell, the fifth installment in his Spellslinger series. It’s been some time since I read book four – June 2019, to be exact.

This series is a perfect pick if you are tired of all the “chosen one” narratives out there. While the main character Kellen is from a powerful mage family, he only ever managed to master a single spell and on top of that is cursed with mysterious markings on his face. These are called Shadowblack, and the search for a cure is one of the driving forces throughout the series. Another big part is the relationship Kellen develops with a cursing and rowdy squirrel cat, Reichis. While threatening to basically eat everyone’s eyeballs, this familiar – no, sorry business partner – is probably the main reason Kellen is still alive in book five.

Other than the previous books, the pacing was quite slow for about two thirds of the book, which made the ending feel really rushed in contrast. The general idea of having a fairly incompetent main character is still fun, but starts to lead to a very generic and repetitive plot. It is getting harder and harder to believe that Kellen has managed to survive this long against powerful enemies with only a single spell and a murderous squirrel cat. Sadly, this is the weakest instalment in the series so far and felt more like a novella between two primary works. I hope this is justified by being the buildup to a grand finale. I want to finish the series with the last book, Crownbreaker, at some point in the next couple of months to see if it pays off.

Pirates on a Sea of Grass

The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson, published 19 January 2021, is the first book in a new environmental fantasy series.

Imagine yourself on a ship in the middle of a sea of miles deep prairie grass, pirates, a war over water between two floating cities. These are the ideas I had, when I read the blurb and saw the cover of the book.

Alas, that’s not what I got. Instead of a fantasy adventure, I got a Bildungsroman with a heavy climate change moral tale that could have been so much better with a bit of pruning from an experienced editor.

Kindred, the main character, is a hearth keeper on a harvesting vessel crossing the Forever Sea harvesting grasses and wildflowers used for food, medicine, or magic. She has to take care of the magical fire burning bones harvested from captains that keeps the ship afloat and propels it forwards. When she receives a missive from her grandmother – a larger than life figure which the reader is reminded of over and over – Kindred wants to follow her grandmother into the depths below the prairie grass that makes up the Forever Sea. Something must still be down there, something other than monsters.

For years there has been a war over the water stores between Arcadia, an island city which basically enslaved nature, and the Once-City, a floating ship like city travelling endlessly along the edges of the Forever Sea which “lived with the world,” acting in tune with nature. The ship Kindred had signed onto has to flee Arcadia, the crew is badly injured in a fight and has to seek the Once-City for help. Unsurprisingly, neither city is the refuge it seems to be.

What didn’t work for me:

  • Miles deep grass and wildflowers? I would really liked to have seen an explanation of how this is supposed to work. Even knowing I’m reading a fantasy novel it was very hard to ignore this. Plants need light to grow. It is very hard to imagine plants growing miles in length to reach the light. Not to mention that these plants need water that makes its way miles up within tiny capillaries?
  • Water shortage. These above mentioned plants get their water from the ground. So why not dive down into the depth of the grass ocean and find the ground water? Yes, there are terrible monsters down there, but obviously they can be fought. In an ocean of grass you don’t have to worry about not having enough oxygen for your dive.
  • The framing story. It certainly has a purpose other than adding to the page count of the book.
  • The pacing. Even in the middle of a fight we get ruminations about Kindred’s past. In another already slow spot of the story we get descriptions of each individual blade of grass as the light is reflected off it.

Some of the ideas of this book where really good. But, I would have liked a faster pacing and less repetition, also of the moral tale.

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